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Steveu's Review of . . .

Slinger Sanchez Running Gun

the track novel by Bruce Glikin

Slinger Slings it Hard

A Review of Slinger Sanchez Running Gun, by Bruce Glikin

by steveu

From the first page of Bruce Glikin's 1998 novel Slinger Sanchez Running Gun - where aspiring Olympian and main character Jesse Sanchez nearly gets whacked by some nasty teenager while warming up for the 2000 Olympic Trials 800 meters - it's clear this novel wants to go beyond the story of a star athlete overcoming the odds. It wants to get real with what the author considers the environment of world-class track and field.

That is both its bounty and its burden. The author takes us on an often-thrilling ride through the upper echelons of the sport through the eyes of a character that basically proves himself the best middle distance runner of all-time. But in creating a picture of the rough-and-tumble world of this scene, and Sanchez's upbringing, he paints with some very broad strokes - while getting, at times, too rough for my liking. This book is clearly a necessary addition to any mature runner's library; there are so few books like this out there that they become necessary by their existence. But it grated on me even while it entertained and enchanted.

At its best, this book is a fantastic (as in, almost like a fantasy) tale of a young man of Mexican and Irish heritage who has to overcome everything from a rough upbringing and economic disparity to a corrupt national federation and a deceptive lover. Jesse Sanchez is hot-tempered and sometimes impulsive, but at the deepest level, a paragon of athletic purity and virtue. His Scottish coach, Kevin McClanahan, is a pariah and loose cannon to the powers that be in the sport, yet a messiah to Sanchez and his dedicated charges. The story is one of their mutual indomitable love for the sport that rolls from Sanchez's stunning, unexpected success, to his wrongful banishment from the sport, and finally to his ultimately triumphant return.

The racing and training passages mostly feel right in their accounts of high-intensity running on the edge. Competitive runners can identify with the stress and self-doubt created by aches and injuries, and the exultation of Jesse when he produces record performances. In fact, there's enough description that even those who don't know much about track can be educated on some of its structure and meaning. In the first few pages, for example, the pending Trials 800 is described as "two revolutions of merciless burning, a war of sinew and nerves. It would be a frantic overdistance sprint of flying elbows and gnashing spikes. It was a race where runners never caught their breath, a battle where intuition and reaction devoured planning and intellect."

Maybe a little over-dramatized, but I'm guessing you Marc Sylvesters and Andre Buchers out there would agree. Other details involve the benefits of track spikes and a clandestine meeting between an investigator and steroid "guru" that serves as a primer about drugs in the sport. The racing, whether from the Trials 800, Jesse's European circuit baptism or his final triumph in Eugene, is gripping and real.

The story blends the real history of the sport with fictional characters. Published in 1998, it takes us through the author's vision of the 2000 Trials, and Games in Sydney, to the 2004 season with its Athens Olympics. But the performances by the book's athletes are well beyond our current standards. Some characters clearly represent real-life individuals. And Glikin adds enough real-sounding Moroccan, Kenyan, Ethiopian and Algerian stars that maybe if your friends and family read the book, their eyes won't glaze over the next time you're shouting about the latest record attempt by Hicham El Guerrouj.

Glikin also conveys the relationships in the sport well. The synergy of coach and athlete is captured, for example, after Jesse's coach delivers some pre-race strategy: "Sanchez felt a chill go down his spine. McClanahan had read his mind. It was exactly the type of race he'd envisioned running, but was fearful of attempting."

The author also does a nice job with the BS-ing between coach and athlete, and between athletes themselves. One passage during Jesse's rehab with his "running bums" is particularly effective. A nice narrative touch involves the e-mails exchanged between Jesse, his coach, his mother and his girlfriend.

Glikin obviously has the best intentions and is committed to telling it like he feels it is. The rawness works in some places, but overall seems unnecessarily harsh. I said the book was a must for the library of any "mature runner" earlier because if I were a parent, I wouldn't hand it to anyone under 14 or 15 - due to the profanity, violence and other adult elements. Sure, young teens are exposed to these things, but parental discretion is advised.

Jesse and his coaches are certainly tough, street-savvy characters that fight first and talk later, but when this comes to fruition it's overdone. Jesse's romance (and romantic betrayal) with a character named Shauna is thankfully handled with more discretion.

Glikin obviously wants to portray the real-life corruption of track's national and international governing bodies with the not-so-cleverly disguised NATF and ITF and their thinly veiled leaders. (Guess who "Primo Magiano" is?) But his Evil Empire portrayal is overblown. In one passage, a Kenyan co-star is lamenting Jesse's place: "The American had been asphyxiated by politics. It was the same fetid stench that had suffocated the Kenyan's early career. The effluence had spewed from open sewers, communal cesspools shared by global autocracies. He viewed their power as all-consumptive, cold-blooded cartels that systematically destroyed hope and life."

Well, excuse me if I step outside to get some fresh air so I don't suffocate. Journalists with dusky moles, agents who pick their noses and even coaches (with the exception of Jesse's) are pretty much scum as well. The political view is completely one-sided towards the athlete; the athlete as victim. I'm not Mr. Big Supporter of track's governing bodies, but some balance would have been welcome.

And in contrast to the metronome-like pace by which Jesse clicks off 100s in a race or workout, the pacing of Glikin's work can be much less even. The opening sequence of the 800 is melodramatically drawn out. Things go OK for awhile, but when Jesse suffers his wrongful suspension, it's not only him that gets detoured. We first endure drama in a Montana hick town - with three chapters wasted on an incident that's ludicrous, drawn out and unnecessary. Then I'm stunned the way Sanchez drops the sport so quickly after an injury, symbolically dropping shoes in a trash can, leading to a two-year disappearance (and two-year gap in our story).

Fortunately, he comes back and justice is mostly served. Effective rehab sequences eventually lead to the revealing European tour that is a highlight of the book. But while I can see Jesse's attraction to Seville (his first stop), do we really need the three-page travelogue?

Our hero's fitness reaches incredible levels once again, highlighted by an incredible time trial with his newfound Kenyan friend. But when more health problems threaten to take Jesse out for good, the plot takes rapid turns to his final redemption that whisk by us like Mo Greene in a 100. Crucial decisions to retire and come back are too quick, strange and easy, rushing us into the book's conclusion. It's almost as if Glikin met up with an editor who kept too much fat in some places and not enough in others.

All that said, the payoff is worth it. Do I still say it's a must-read? Yes. Was I able to put it down each night as I read it? Not until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. Despite my nitpicking, I still found it as gripping as most anything I've read. The journalist in me wanted a cleaner, smarter, more sophisticated read. The hard-core runner and drama king in me didn't care.

So get the book. Unless you're a journalist, you probably (like Bill Rodgers, Jeff Wells and other champion reviewers on the back cover) won't care about my complaints. And even if you do, you'll still hold a treasured place for it.

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